By Clay Bailey/The Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Sitting atop the NBA standings is new territory for Memphis. Getting off to a winning start is just as unusual for the Grizzlies.
Memphis, which tends to stumble out the gate, is a league-best 13-3. The Grizzlies never have had a better record at this point of the season. They were 11-5 in 2005-06 and 10-6 last season, the only other times they have had a winning record after 16 games.
Coach Lionel Hollins and his Grizzlies list several reasons for this great start, ranging from scheduling to preseason preparation to better chemistry. Point guard Mike Conley said it started with the way the Grizzlies approached the beginning of training camp.
“Guys were already shape, using training camp to get ready for the first preseason game,” Conley said. ” We were just taking it step-by-step. But the first game, I thought guys’ minds were in mid-season form, and we were clicking in so many different areas as opposed to the past seasons where we started out sluggish and slow.”
So far, so good.
The Grizzlies are the NBA’s best after a 108-98 overtime win over Phoenix on Tuesday night.
That’s a stark contrast to some of their other starts. Some of the worst included a 1-11 start in 2001 and losing the first 13 to open the 2002-03 season.
Chemistry has been a big key. The starting group was set at the end of last season when the Grizzlies finished with the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference.
Forwards Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay and center Marc Gasol have been intact for more than three years, though injuries have caused first Gay, then Randolph to miss significant time the past two seasons. Gasol and Randolph give Memphis one of the NBA’s more potent big men combos.
Conley has improved, and guard Tony Allen provides the defensive mindset that created the Grizzlies’ grit and grind mantra.
“We didn’t have too much to learn, and our bench came off great early, which we haven’t had in the past,” Gay said.
Jerryd Bayless, in Toronto last season, has provided sound help backing up Conley, allowing Hollins to play his starter fewer minutes. Wayne Ellington, a trade pick-up from Minnesota in July, hit a career-high 7 of 11 3-pointers against Miami to lead the Grizzlies to a win.
That started a week where they not only defeated the defending NBA champs, but Oklahoma City, last year’s other NBA Finalist, and handed the New York Knicks their first loss this season.
Quincy Pondexter and Marreese Speights return from last year, and Memphis finally got forward Darrell Arthur back recently from a broken bone in his leg he suffered in September after missing last season with a torn right Achilles tendon.
“At every single position, they’re a challenge,” Detroit coach Lawrence Frank said before the Pistons’ 90-78 loss at Memphis last Friday. “There’s a reason why these guys are the best team in the league record-wise. There’s a reason why over the last, basically going on a year and a half, why they are one of the better home teams in the league.”
The Grizzlies now are a league-best 9-1 at home this season, the only loss coming to Denver 97-92 on Nov. 19. That snapped a 15-game regular season home winning streak for Memphis dating to last season.
The schedule also has helped because the Grizzlies haven’t had to take a long road trip yet. Memphis opened at Los Angeles against the Clippers, then went to Golden State. From there, it has been one-night stops in Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Charlotte and last weekend in San Antonio.
Memphis finished November with a five-game home stand — its longest of the season — by going 4-1.
“It’s easier, better to start the season at home, regardless of who you play, and we’ve been fortunate to get those wins,” said Hollins, named Western Conference coach of the month through November. “We’ve come together as a team. We’ve matured. As to how and why we started quicker? It probably has a lot to do with scheduling.”
No matter the reason, the Grizzlies are enjoying themselves after so many losing starts.
“We’ve been good at that for the last five years,” Gay said. “Now, we don’t have to do it. It’s a lot easier.”